GradSchoolFilter: I know I can... but I can't.
January 31, 2008 5:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm a grad student. I like the subject(s) I'm studying, I like research, and I know I'm capable of doing the work... except when I sit down to actually do it, I choke. I know I'm not the only one suffering from both imposter syndrome and perfectionism - how do you manage to get your brain to stop spinning its wheels and get to work?

My department is in the top 5 for its specialty, and I'm surrounded by very smart people. By all accounts, I am also a very smart person, but I'm having trouble believing in my own ability to comprehend and complete the work. Part of the problem is that my background is different from that of most people in my program. I haven't had some of the background classes that they have, so I have to work harder to make up for this. I'm not used to working hard - this article basically describes me, except that I didn't need to expend any effort until I got to grad school. I know that if I could just get myself to work through it I would be able to figure things out, but when I sit down to work, my mind crashes. Everything seems overwhelming and incomprehensible, I get anxious, and I don't even know what questions I could be asking to better understand the material. I end up procrastinating, which only makes things worse. Even things that I do get right away end up getting put off since my mind wanders whenever I start reading or writing.

On top of this, I have much higher standards for my work than I do for anyone else's. In my head, my work has to be brilliant. Anything less will reveal me to be as incompetent as my twisted mental image thinks I am. Unsurprisingly, I also have trouble asking questions or making comments in seminars/classes/meetings as I'm afraid of looking stupid. I can't count the number of times I've kicked myself for not saying anything when my unspoken comment or "guess" is vindicated by someone else actually willing to speak up.

I've been working on these (and other issues) with a therapist. I've also been consulting with a psychiatrist to see if medication might improve my concentration, but I'm increasingly of the belief that it's primarily psychological and that drugs won't help. I'm sick of feeling this way, and I can't keep going on like this if I expect to finish my degree. How can I get myself to push away my feelings of incompetence and fear so that I can just get to work? I know this is a common problem among graduate students, so there has to be a way to cope with it.

Things I've tried with little to no success: working on my time management skills (having a clean desk and set times to study don't help when your brain can't stop flagellating itself long enough to get anything done), breaking things into smaller pieces (see above - also, I sometimes don't even know where to make the first break), working with other students, working in different places, "fake it 'til you make it" confidence (pretending to believe in myself might help a bit socially, but I can't pretend to get work done). Questions and comments can be sent to:
posted by anonymous to Education (33 answers total) 119 users marked this as a favorite
Hi there. Are you in your first year?

I'm guessing so. I felt just like you did last year. It has gotten SIGNIFICANTLY BETTER in the second year.

I also didn't have the background as my classmates (they, for the most part, had majored as undergrads in departments quite similar to ours - quantitative, same theoretical perspectives, etc.). It was bumpy for the first year, but I certainly feel like I have caught up (and I hear similar things from other grads like you and me.) I also work pretty hard to do all of the reading, read beyond that, and really put in a 9-5 every M-F, as well as at least 1 weekend day. I also worked on reading ALL SUMMER.

I was pretty depressed through the first year, but again, it gets WAY better, I promise.

As far as the work has to be brilliant thing - the fact is, you are a graduate student. Those faculty members, they are faculty members because they've done years and years more work than us. The faculty members SHOULD be grading us harshly and our work is NOT as good as theirs.

A few words of advice:
- keep seeing the shrink
- try to find a 3rd or 4th year grad to be your buddy
- try to work with nice professors
- Read Getting What You Came For
- Don't forget to keep up on yoga, exercise, meditation, sleep, eating right, etc.
- Read this question by me over a year ago
- and this question that I wrote before I started
- think about getting a cat to make you feel loved and lovable and responsible
- remember that you are there by choice and that you could drop out at any time
posted by k8t at 6:03 PM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

PS, if you happen to be at my school, let's get lunch! Or feel free to MeFi e-mail or real e-mail me.
posted by k8t at 6:04 PM on January 31, 2008

I don't mean to be a presumptuous, but you sound like me 4 years ago, when I decided (for right or wrong) that academia wasn't the place for me. I loved my subject, the department was stellar, in theory everything should have been great, but ultimately I had to bail. I decided that I shouldn't have to go to therapy just to go to grad school, and being a professor was going to be more of the same. FWIW, I'm perfectly happy now, and it worked out great. Just so you know, the "worst case scenario" isn't so bad :)
posted by unknowncommand at 6:08 PM on January 31, 2008

Grad school is full of imposters. Nobody knows how to do the things they want to do -- that's why its grad school. If it was a solved problem, it wouldn't be research.

Try to get 1 thing done per day. Just one thing. Pick a paper for the day, or a bit analysis you need to do. Just 1 thing. And then get it done. You can build yourself up to be more and more productive. Grad school is a marathon not a 100 M dash. You have time to get into the groove, and time to learn how to focus and work better/smarter/faster(ok, "at all"). So take your time. Just read 1 good paper tomorrow. And another the day after. And then on the third day, tackle something else.
posted by zpousman at 6:32 PM on January 31, 2008 [3 favorites]

On the worst days, I promise myself I will get one thing done and then I get the rest of the day off. On the better days, I put aside the thing on which I'm stuck and just do whatever else needs doing that I can bear to do--in my field that might mean spending the day weighing things rather than writing.

The best days are the ones where I take five minutes to help out a fellow grad student with whatever I can. Sometimes, it's answering a question within our discipline that happens to be something I know about, recommending a book or paper, teaching a technique: it feels great every time we realize we really are learning things and the entire process isn't futile. Other days, it's just being there listening while somebody lets loose a rant like yours. Knowing there are plenty of people around who feel the same way, and that even the people who seem to have it together are sometimes on the verge of falling apart, really does make it feel survivable.

I also volunteer as a mentor with middle school girls and have a teaching mentor as well as my research advisor. Those activities help me remember that I'm doing this because I want to teach and keep me on track to actually get to do that one day.

Oh, and cats help, too.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:33 PM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

You sound very anxious. This is something medication can help with. As unknowncommand says, you may not want to go to therapy and take medication just to get through grad school. It is something to think about.

I have a PhD and am now a professor, and I've been through a version of what you describe. k8t's advice is pretty good. Other things that work for me:
- The instant boss timer (for Windows). I do 20 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break. I pick the number of intervals based on my schedule for the day.
- Rewards for small things. Here the trick is to reward yourself when you do well without beating yourself up if you aren't perfect. So set small goals. For example, if you read one chapter of X book, then you get to take the rest of the day off and do Y fun thing.
- Take the New York article you describe and use it's findings to your advantage. Tell yourself, "By putting in the effort to read this article, I'm becoming smarter, even if I don't finish it today. I'm going to put in a good effort. Even if I fail, that failure will help me improve." You could even practice deliberately failing at things.
- Look at Robert Boice's book "Advice for New Faculty Members." The title sounds like it doesn't apply to you, but much of the book is about how to overcome writer's block and procrastination.
posted by medusa at 6:35 PM on January 31, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'd like to point out my failure to correctly use "its" instead of "it's" in my post. I have now met my goal of embarrassing myself on the internet once per day.
posted by medusa at 6:37 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

This book was written by someone who counselled grad students at UCBerkeley with the same issues you have.
posted by conrad53 at 6:48 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think you should read about flow, a term popularized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi which in short is "the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." ...worth researching.

Also try to avoid creating and analyzing at the same time as they are different processes. Head in one direction with your work, then go back and analyze it after you've finished your thought. Even if your way off in what direction you should be headed it will get your brain primed for doing good work.
posted by pwally at 7:02 PM on January 31, 2008

Find a task to do that you do well at and can finish bits of regularly.

For me, this was TAing and rock climbing.

TAing was great because I knew the material, really felt like I made a difference for the students, it happened at a regular time that I couldn't change, and every single class I finished was a concrete accomplishment I could tick off.

Rock climbing was (and still is) marvelous because I could actually finish a route, usually several, during one session.

One of the things that's hardest with grad school is that the time scale is longer than for undergrad work. Your thesis project will take years; even reasonable subdivisions of it will be several months long rather than cut up by weeks or semesters. It can be hard to start on a huge project, which you of course know; for me, I couldn't always break a project into pieces, so doing something else that I *could* break into pieces was key.

Also, YMM definitely V on this one, but for me it helps to be overscheduled. I'm a big fan of this essay. You may work differently, and I think one of the skills that you get out of grad school is discovering your own most efficient work style for long term projects. Useful if you stay in academia, or not!
posted by nat at 7:16 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are you me? Because this is a very similar situation to mine. I'm in my first year, in a program I don't have any background in, and I feel exactly like you do. I can't emphasize nat's suggestion enough -- the trick is to do at least one thing you're good at, even if you don't have time for it. If you're into interacting with groups, TAing does help (make absolutely sure it's something you know well).

One thing that makes it easier for me to deal with is realizing how much time the other students have put into the same material. They did 3 years straight of this stuff -- it doesn't mean you aren't capable, it's just an issue of resources (time, namely).

Another suggestion is to take your time -- don't rush into material that's heavy and new to you. I learned that I can't expect to learn everything overnight -- overambitious self-goals tend to lead to more procrastination. This is important: read all of your department's documentations to find out just how firm the deadlines are. Changing majors in grad school is extremely difficult, and you can maybe get a waiver or extension in order to catch up (or at the very least, schedule your classes according to the time it takes to learn the material first).

I'd also like to extend an invitation to meet, although I go to the same school at k8t. So, you know, take that for what it is. Feel free to Mefimail me to have a complain buddy, because it helps to find people who feel the same way you do and who really understand how crushing the inadequacy feels.
posted by spiderskull at 7:41 PM on January 31, 2008

You sound overwhelmed. You have grand expectations, which you WILL NEVER live up to (nobody does). You expect things to just work naturally and have brilliant ideas come to you (the opposite of research, where things only work on the last thing you try, and ideas come after failing many times over). If I were you I would first try to be really really honest about why your are there. Are you trying to prove something to yourself or for someone else? Is this a clear career choice? Figure out all the conscious and unconscious pressures you are subjecting yourself to. When you can at least be aware of them then you can get enough mental space to allow yourself to be there and make all the mistakes you need to make in order for it to be fun. Personally, research can be a lot of fun when you know in advance that its about failing again and again as you get closer to something .... just like solving a very hard riddle. Relish the challenge.

Apropos figuring yourself out, I am reading a book about "focusing" that seems like a good tool for doing that.
posted by blueyellow at 7:46 PM on January 31, 2008

you will find no shortage of advice primarily because this is THE most common issue for grad students. You're not only not alone, youre in a VAST CROWD, and your ailment is (whether you beleive it or not right now) extremely common. In fact the people who dont struggle with these feelings in grad school are the rare exception and usually abnormal in some way.

Just some random thoughts and suggestions, based on my own experience:

Coming from a different background? That is your advantage, it is not a disadvantage. you bring a fresh set of eyes to your field.

Cant get started with the writing? You're really over estimating what it takes to put out a piece of writing at the grad school stage. I too imagined my writing needed to be perfect until I joined a dissertation writing group (which I heartily recommend) and saw what my fellow students were writing (straightforward and simple stuff, quite honestly) and then I stopped worrying about my own work. Whats more, they all went on to get jobs in the field. It really does not take all that much, you dont have to aim for perfection.

Getting started can be a bitch though especially if you've already over-thought your project. You may need to UNthink it a bit, simplify it down to its barest skeleton.

Believe in, and count on, incremental revisions of your writing rather than expecting it to all drop fully formed in one shot. Dissertation writing groups can help immensely in this regard, just a bunch of friends (who need not be in your field) who are also struggling with the writing; meet with them regularly (every other day) in the library or a coffee shop and eveyrone writes together.

May also help to see your advisor and honestly tell him or her you would like some help with the process and if you can talk it thru with them?

Discipilne - bad news is, you will need it in the end, and in the end it wont come from anyone but you... I used to have "more drive than discipline" until I sat down to write the dissertation and suddenly I discovered that while "drive" had brought me this far, it was not going to be enough from this point forward, and that I would also have to start incorporating discipline. No one was more dissapointed with this realization than I, since I'm a lazy son of a bitch. But there really is no way around that except to begin - for what may be the first time in your life - organizing every minute of every day, putting feelings aside, whatever it takes, to park your ass in the chair and spend the hours in front of the computer screen ("ass power" we call it. you need it.) Just by sitting there for hours you will begin to grind the project out.

Dissertation is for most people the single largest project they've ever had to perform up to that point in their lives. And it is an enormous project, done largely alone by a single person. Thats the truth, dont deny that truth. Thats exactly why its so hard - because it honestly is that hard. Its also very easy: standards are lower than you think; and by the time you've put in background, context, history, and quotes, 80 percent of it is already written.

Break things up into chapters (20 to 25 pages), each chapter is forwards your thesis by one small step. Write each one like a separate project. Give each one to your advisor without worrying about the whole thing. Tell your advisor your table of contents. Promise him or her you'll give him a chapter every 2 weeks (light a fire under your own butt). Tell him it will be a basic skeletal first draft and that you will incrementally improve it with his and other peoples help. Be upfront and honest about the process with him and others and thus with yourself; and light the fires under your own ass.

As for specific strategies for breaking down your time and discpline, the suggestion others have already provided in this thread are pretty good and you can experiment with what works for you.

sympathetically yours...
posted by jak68 at 8:04 PM on January 31, 2008 [10 favorites]

I didn't go to grad school but suffered similar problems in undergrad; figured out several years later that I am afraid of failure, so I don't proceed. It seems like such a simple problem, but it's so difficult to realize you have it and fix it.

I used to do the same thing you do, sit down to work on something I love and totally choke on it, not know where to start, not know where to end, etc. I gave myself permission to be fallible a few weeks ago and suddenly I'm like a machine working to get stuff done. Now instead of feeling like I'm an idiot who's incapable, I feel like an idiot who wasted a hell of a lot of time worrying about nothing.

Reading GTD helped too. Good luck.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 8:22 PM on January 31, 2008

There isn't a single magic answer that will make this problem go away forever, so the trick is to mitigate it. You need to get outside the self-doubting mindset enough to break the self-reinforcing downward spiral of not getting things done, leading to more anxiety, leading to not getting things done. Not to be too goofily simplistic about it, but the way to break this cycle is to get some things done: focus on small, achievable things like reading a text and making some notes on it, brainstorming some research ideas, doing a small piece of writing, or presenting some work to a small group of peers. If you have some small achievement every few days, you can focus on that and realize that you're making progress. Something new every day is probably too high a standard to hold yourself to at first: try to set goals you can make, and then give yourself any kind of positive reinforcement that works for you when you accomplish them (if you miss some milestones, don't beat yourself up about it, just let it go). Find some good work you've already done, and remind yourself why it's good and deserving of praise. Build up a list of pieces of work you can feel proud of, even as small as single-sentence insights, and think over them when you catch yourself sliding back into self-doubt. (Even those thoughts you didn't voice in seminar show you were anticipating the course the discussion would take, thinking ahead of other people in the room – this is hardly something to feel ashamed of.)

Also, several people have said this already, but I want to reiterate anyway: you are not alone. I'd say more graduate students have some version of this problem than don't – especially in the first couple of years, especially women. It gets better over time for many people, when they have gotten some good work done and been praised for it, when their advising and dissertation plans are more secure, etc. Some part of this problem, not all of it, is part of the normal adjustment from undergrad to grad school: you do have to learn to generate more encouragement and motivation yourself now and rely on outside praise, even on your advisors, for a little less (not none!) of it.
posted by RogerB at 8:37 PM on January 31, 2008

Here's me commiserating. I haven't accomplished anything all day. Or yesterday. I take the out-of-the-way corridors to avoid my advisor. I'm not dropping out, but I am afraid of failing out. Strangely, I keep getting the praise and respect of my fellow grad students who seem to think I've got it all together. Ha.
posted by terceiro at 9:11 PM on January 31, 2008

>I take the out-of-the-way corridors to avoid my advisor

haha! this too virtually every single ABD-stage grad student I know, does. Its just what we do at this stage. ;) Slink around and avoid the department ;)
posted by jak68 at 9:14 PM on January 31, 2008

Inertia, when you are still, is your enemy. It gives time for introspection and all those nagging thoughts of indequacy.

Even if it's not brilliant, do SOMETHING.

These two things should be tattooed on your eyeballs



Start something productive and managable: emails, grading, even paying bills. Have your work next to you. Once you're in a groove actually productively working, it's often easier to transition into writing/analysis.

Don't worry about perfection first time round: no-one is hovering over your shoulder laughing at your errors. I personally know McArthur winners, rhodes scholars, full profs at ivies, have chatted w/nobel laureates: their drafts SUCK too.

This is in ongoing process. There's no doubting it's difficulty: but you are up to it and capable.

Inertia once you're moving is your friend.
posted by lalochezia at 9:43 PM on January 31, 2008 [8 favorites]

One more small idea that might or might not help: juggle tasks and procrastinate productively. This might be what nat was getting at with the idea that being overscheduled helps. Try to arrange things so that you can procrastinate from the work that's driving you nuts by doing other work, work that seems more approachable or, dare I say it, even fun, rather than just staring into space or getting another coffee or washing the dishes (you will end up doing all of these anyway, we all do). I have never been better at writing articles and conference talks, or reading widely in and outside my field, than when I really want to avoid working on my dissertation. This is obviously not necessarily a good strategy in the long term, but I think it's much less bad than it may sound, anyway, and sometimes very good for getting unstuck for a week or two.
posted by RogerB at 9:44 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Friend, we are every one of us is faking it. You can let that bother you, or not.

Come over and see us here
, where the impostor syndrome is a frequent topic.
posted by LarryC at 9:57 PM on January 31, 2008

Lots of excellent advice above.
This is extremely common. That won't help you get things done, of course, but it's nice to know anyway.
1. Small manageable tasks, getting a little something done every day. One page of writing per day. One article read per day. (or whatever goals are realistic for you. the key is "realistic".)
2. Actually sit your ass down and do them. Agonizing doesn't help. Find a place where you can go just to work during your work time. Eg library. Get foam ear plugs; for some reason I've found they really help me focus even in a quiet environment.
3. Reasonable expectations for yourself - there is infinitely much to learn, of course, but you don't need to learn all of it now, or even by the time you finish the degree. You'll learn one sub-area. You'll have blind spots. So will everyone else in your program. This is ok. Blind spots are ok. If you have them you are normal, not a failure.
4. Try to retain perspective on what's obvious. You say you hold back comments which later, others make, and get praised for. You are perceptive. You're reading this stuff and having good ideas, appropriate responses. Don't assume that just because you've read something and understood it, that everyone can understand it as well as you, or that your objection or thoughts are obvious. They're not obvious. This is the biggest thing (for me, anyway) about the impostor stuff. The insights you're having are not obvious, they are worth mentioning, worth writing about. Go for it. Some of them might turn out to be a little obvious, that's fine, you will keep on trucking. Suppose you had 30% very clever and novel thoughts, 40% good thoughts, and 30% thoughts that were fairly obvious. You would still be very smart, and get a PhD, and have a reasonable shot at an academic job -- if you could overcome the fear that someone will figure out that you have "only" 30% very clever thoughts.
5. If you decided to quit, you would end up doing something else very interesting. Quitting is a good option - everyone I know who has quit has been very happy about it, and they are all ferociously smart people who are living better lives outside academia. If you quit you're not a failure, you're an adult who made a completely good and smart choice.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:15 PM on January 31, 2008 [3 favorites]

First year grad student here as well, and I seem to have hit the nail on the head for making it through(at least as far as everyone in my cohort tells me, and as far as my survival goes):

Grad school (and being an academic, in general) is overwhelming. Everyone gets overwhelmed, everyone feels in over their heads, there is always something looming, so much pressure, so much to think about and worry about, and really, we're all those Type A, worry about everything, perfectionist types, or we wouldn't be here in the first place.

The issue is how big you let your lens get. How "big picture" you're thinking. If you start thinking about everything you have to do, on whatever scale, it's always going to be too much and it's always going to be too hard. That's just the nature of the beast. But if you dial down the lens, and focus on one thing at a time, it's easier. Sometimes you get lucky, and you get to think of one quarter at a time. Sometimes it's Finals Week, and you only get to think about one paragraph in the take-home exam at a time. Either way, unless you center in on what's immediately in front of you and block out the rest, it's too much.

I started keeping To Do lists. Right now, I keep one for the entire week. As I get busier, it will probably become one for each day. But behind that list (I keep it clipped in my planner), I have a global To Do. It's all the big, long term stuff. That way I know it's there, I'm thinking about it, and I can kind-of worry about it when I need to, but most of the time, it's in the back, waiting. Not looming, just being kept in mind.

This might not work at all for you, but it might be just the trick, too. I feel so much better, I know, when I catch myself getting all anxious and worried about where I'm going to do my doctoral work, and with whom, or where I might teach after. If I just take it one chunk at a time, compartmentalize it all up, it's so much easier to handle, and it keeps the panic attacks at bay.

If all else fails, start up a mindfulness practice. Renewing mine has saved my butt in so, SO many ways.
posted by messylissa at 10:18 PM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

Or, I guess, more succinctly, #1 from LobsterMitten.
posted by messylissa at 10:19 PM on January 31, 2008

Oh, AND fan_of_all_things_small, that's actually a phenomenon called Self-Worth Protection.
posted by messylissa at 10:28 PM on January 31, 2008


For my money lalochezia has it exactly right. Most people get this exactly backwards.
posted by jak68 at 11:31 PM on January 31, 2008

15 minute timer, and faith. This from an anally organised atheist. For 15 minutes, I will concentrate on the material (undergrad but technical), and make notes and if I want to go longer, I can but I don't have to. Then I'll do 15 minutes of housework, cat play, whatever, and then 15 minutes again. That's the timer.

The faith is that there's been very little I couldn't understand if I tried hard enough. I've got brilliant grades, (luckily for me, some of these subjects were quite difficult - for me, so they make believing easier). So I suggest to you, pretend that you will understand it, if you try hard enough. Underline useful paragraphs. Look up the jargon and make notes. Do all the things you didn't have to do in earlier classes that hardworking but not brilliant students had to do. And just believe - believe that if you put in enough effort, if you sit there reading the words often enough and making notes and mindmaps and looking at other material, you will actually learn. What have you got to lose? Yeah, maybe you can't do it, but I don't think that's the issue, and neither do you. So take the leap of faith, and find out what it's like to be an ordinary student. It's a wild ride.
posted by b33j at 12:44 AM on February 1, 2008

There is a lot of good advice in this thread already, so I'll just reiterate a few things

Study buddies are key in graduate school so that you can hear first hand that others are having the same problems (intellectually and emotionally). Study budies also can fight procrastination, though it is no cure.

There is unending work in graduate school, and so you have to learn to take breaks, especially on the days where you just know you are only going to procrastinate. On those days, do something extra fun --- that is, instead of flipping the channels, take 3--24 hours off and go out and do something that shifts your mind set. Now, you can do this for a week straight, but there is a sweet spot. If you don't learn to recognize that you can't work 24/7, you'll burn out and feel guilty about it. You need to take breaks sometimes and rejuvenate.

Lastly, be sure to talk with your advisor. They are very good for pep talks and can help you. *Every* graduate student has trouble during a program, and your advisor has seen it all and experienced it themselves. (Now it could be your advisor sucks, but that's a different problem.)
posted by about_time at 4:29 AM on February 1, 2008

Everyone else has covered the deeper issues, so I'll just reiterate b33j's tip. When I'm overwhelmed (usually at the beginning of a project) and at risk to procrastination, I've found that splitting things up into timed chunks really helps. Attacking the whole project seems like an impossible proposition, but finding a first step that only takes 15 minutes or a half hour is manageable. So, 15 minutes writing, 15 minutes doing something else is a good start. Then you can move on to 30 minutes on/15 off or 45 on/15 off. This feels like a lot of downtime, but really, it prevents paralysis.
posted by umbú at 4:49 AM on February 1, 2008

I'm in Year 3 of a part-time grad program. I have major ups and downs of productivity, but when I really slow to a crawl it's usually because I'm stuck writing something I don't feel able to tackle well. As I'm struggling along writing or proofing a paper I usually think it looks like amateurish crap. However by the time I see it in print in a journal, I nearly always think it's pretty damn good. So for the confidence issue, my advice is to reread some of your old work and remember what made you good enough to get accepted by your program in the first place. If you still can't get on with writing, ask your supervisor to set you soft and hard deadlines for a first draft of whatever you are doing, and be prepared to accept their wise comments in improving your work. After all it's supposed to be an educational process.
posted by roofus at 5:40 AM on February 1, 2008

I graduated last May with my Master's as a "non-traditional student", and the only way I got through it was to give myself permission to fail, and fail spectacularly. When I do this, 85% of the time I exceed my own (and others') expectations. 14% of the time I achieve mediocrity. 1% of the time I actually do poorly.

I don't know if anyone's mentioned the fear of success as opposed to the fear of failure, but I'm facing that now in my job. If I succeed, I feel like I'm just raising people's expectations of me, and setting them up for disappointment. Sometimes it feels better to be mediocre on purpose so I don't have to feel the sting of their inevitable disappointment. But you know what - god I've rambled on long enough and I'm fucking up this very comment so I'll end it now and go get some coffee: to get stuff done, treat it like a game and don't be afraid to "lose" the game. It's probably not a permanent loss.
posted by desjardins at 6:50 AM on February 1, 2008

Focus on the positive reasons for working, and you'll find that you doubt yourself less. If you try to start a session of work with "I'm doing this because I'm scared of what will happen if I don't", that sets an anxious tone right from the start. A better thought is "I'm doing this because I love the subject and I'll get a wonderful feeling of achievement from completing the studies". In some sense, both statements are true, but the positive one is a much better motivator.

You can cast just about any negative as a positive: "If I don't finish now I'll have wasted a lot of time and money" becomes "If I get this finished, all the time and money I've committed to this will have been really well used".

I think this kind of motivation-focused positive thinking is generally more useful than circumstances-focused positive thinking, because when you tell yourself "I'm very smart" there can still be an underlying thought of "And that's very important, because it will be awful if I fail". When you're focused on the rewards of success, you'll automatically tend to interpret your current circumstances more favorably.
posted by teleskiving at 8:04 AM on February 1, 2008

55 users marked this thread as 'favorite'. If that isnt proof of the commonness of your ailment, I dont know what is. ;)
posted by jak68 at 8:41 PM on February 1, 2008

Impostor Syndrome is common in academia. It happens to undergrads, grad students, postdocs, and even faculty members (I know, I have tenure!). There also exist related phenomena like "Stereotype Threat", in which minority students' performance on a test drops if they are first psyched out in general terms but not if they aren't. These and other common academic psychological pitfalls are worth learning about so you can recognize and mitigate them.

Good recommendations for helpful advice books should be available from the graduate office in your department. Better yet, ask senior PhD students in your field what they already found useful. That way, you can be sure the advice you're getting is actually relevant to your discipline (what works for philosophers doesn't necessarily work for physicists). Talking to more senior versions of yourself is always a good mechanism for finding out if you are suited to the work and for finding out how you can improve your work.

Another good coping mechanism is to read the hilarious cartoon "Piled Higher and Deeper",, about life as a PhD student. I gather that many grad students find real solace in this, as well as guffaws. YMMV. :-)

The trick to being competitive in academia is to *harness* that stress. Either you keep it corralled, freeing the rest of your mental energy for actual work, or you let it take over your mind i.e. overwhelm you. Methods of containing performance anxiety stress will differ between individuals, but the basic principle is the same: in order to get from where you are now to where you want to go, *the key is to engineer a series of small, feasible, steps* leading up to that goal. A ten metre high vertical wall is a far more dispiriting to face - and requires more training and technical equipment to climb - than a staircase composed of forty steps each a quarter-metre high.

It is part of your PhD advisor's job to help you engineer the right series of feasible small steps, whether that process involves sharing expert technical knowledge with you or providing wise advice about how to manage your daily workflow in detail. The other profs on your PhD committee also have responsibility for your academic well-being, as does the entire department in a general sense. If you are stuck, seek assistance. Don't stay stuck down a black hole of despair because you're too proud to ask for a helping hand when you need it. Later on, when you are able, you will then take your turn extending a helping hand to someone else. That's academic karma. :-)

Whatever a person's temperament, research will always be an emotionally risky enterprise. There's a lot of hard slog involved, and we don't know for sure how it's going to turn out - if we did know the answer already, then it wouldn't be research! So a competitive academic researcher needs to have support mechanisms (like beer buddies) and pleasant worthy distractions (like teaching) in place, in order to succeed in their chosen line of work.

Impostor Syndrome, and the need to corral stress, has an analog in any field of work that is highly competitive. It's not unique to academia. The big question I think is worth focusing on is this: "Can I keep my *integrity intact* while doing what's needed to succeed in this work?". If your answer is yes, you're in the right place.
posted by kiwinerd at 10:47 AM on February 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

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